LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE
GP 30 April 2008: Mile 9: The Journey of the Long-Distance Runner
Why Boston? It is simply an irrational act to go to Boston at this time of year. Closer to home, clematis blossoms are flocking to the vine, ceremonial flush purple at first, then paler as the blossom broadens out. The Japanese maples have achieved a size not seen before, the deep red much more complex than in the Rhone wines we have been drinking lately. And, oh, the viburnum. Just behind the pink roses, one specimen has now shot up to 10 or 11 feet, the white balls so lush and copious as to astound the eyeballs. The green garlic is just at its height, the perfect accompaniment to new country sausage and several experimental dishes that are finding their way to the table.
To go to Boston is a perverse, irrational act. This became abundantly clear to us as we toured the small surrounding burgs and found buds on trees, but not much in the way of leaves. Spring is still meaning to happen in Massachusetts. But, along with thousands of other lemmings, we flooded into Beantown for the Boston Marathon. This is the oldest and apparently the toughest of the Marathon courses. Happily we were in attendance to applaud the 21,963 who made the full run, but not to stretch our own tired sinews.
The Tufts 200. We cast our lot with the almost 200 runners that Tufts University fielded at Hopkinton. Our good friends at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute also had a large contingent on the track, and we could easily have spent the day with them. As well, our friend Richard Marcus, onetime president of Neiman Marcus and today a serial entrepreneur, had his driver take him to several vantage points in order to see his daughter Catherine run a third marathon. That, too, would have provided very good theater.
Happily we embraced Tufts. Its president, Lawrence Bacow, himself a running fanatic, has built running into a school sport. Tufts is so into it that it even has a naked quad run every year where students let it all hang out. No other congregation at the Marathon seems to turn out more and better devotees. As an aside, the Tufts Marathon participation also produces three or four hundred thousand for nutrition research, all terribly relevant now that we are faced with a global food crisis. Both Tufts and Boston have made a mark for themselves in the running game.
Mile 9. Because of the great generosity of the Tufts Marathon Coach, Donald R. Megerle, we made our way to Mile 9 (Natick) with ease in his company. A successful swimming coach at Tufts for 33 seasons, he has only recently given himself over to the Marathons. He is clearly much beloved by the student runners—he combines the focus and the good-hearted spirits which underlie all successful long-term athletic programs.
The Coach remembers every moment of every Marathon:
A former swimming coach, he is able to get totally immersed.
Natick, a onetime a major producer of shoes, is famous for its brogan. We are ashamed to admit that we did not know this, or we would have worn a pair as we joined Tuftese at their Mile 9 outpost where they cheered on the yellow shirts. We would guess a hundred or so friends, parents, and alumni had gathered at road’s edge to root for Tuft runners and many others in the race. Probably we were most amused by a physician from Chicago whose repartee was good and who joined his son for a mile run when the lad came by us. Lance Armstrong, rather anonymous at this event, slipped by with very little commotion. Mile 9 was the peak of our day: the actual finish in Boston, though exciting, was a slightly static mass event and an anticlimax after our Mile 9 communion with the runners a third of the way through the race where, as Walt Whitman would put it, one could hear the Song of the Open Road. We rely here on one of the Tufts runners to tell the full story of the race:
The Tan Line. It’s hot out there. Ideally you want to run a Marathon in 60-degree weather, but this year’s was well over 70 during much of the race. Of course, that’s better than last year, when all were met by a deluge. Charles Constantin, a historian and storyteller who ran 13 times at Boston, reminds us of the many hazards—not just sun—that await the long distance runner:
The Wind Bag. Dr. Donald Bienfang is a Bostonian we cherish because he possesses an elegant wit and he knows the value of a drink well made. We have recorded some of his wisdom at “Old-Fashioned Manhattans.” Runner, too, of many marathons, he captures for us a lot of curious behavior, even his own. Each run generates a slew of laughs:
A Mixed Bag. Jim Fixx, a journalist-runner, who was responsible as much as anyone for getting the running craze going in modern America, died after a run one day. He had heart and circulatory troubles anyway, but he was not the first or the last to kick the bucket after a run. One New York marathoner has reminded us that running, particularly long distance running, is simply hard on the body, and one has to know when to give it up. In Boston, on the sidelines, we met a heap of oldsters who did not give it up in time and whose bodies were full of regrets. Coach Megerle’s swimming or simple bike riding are probably better bets year after year.
That said, running is now part of America, yet another facet of our dramatically changed country that says we have to run things differently because we are a different people. Our leaders have not caught up to our runners. This might remind us of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a Tom Courtenay movie made back in 1962. In many ways, we are competing with nobody when we run: we are running against ourselves. Maybe escaping other aspects of our lives. Maybe just bettering our last time. There’s a solitude to the long distance journey, even if there are 21,000 on the same course. The planet is getting pretty crowded, but the long journeys are done all by our lonesome selves.
P.S. Tufts has a lot of endearing eccentricities. It’s mascot, for instance, is a jumbo elephant courtesy of P.T. Barnum. We would like to see such a creature by the running track, just as Handsome Dan is hauled out for Yale’s global events. As near as we can tell, the best sport to follow at Tufts is football, because nobody comes. We watched one game, on a beautiful Fall day, between Tufts and Williams or some small New England college. The stands half full, the very good cheer on both sides gladdened the heart. It was a family affair.
P.P.S. If we were ever to do a marathon, surely it would have to be at Tromso. Oh, to have the pleasure of running by the midnight sun.
P.P.P.S. In these United States, everything now demands a long view. But we are rather too accustomed to thinking in days rather than years, in feet instead of miles. In almost every pursuit, we are now wise to pin our hopes on fellows who can look over the horizon, knowing that today is not working.
Copyright 2008 GlobalProvince.com